Why "love others" in unhealthy relationships sometimes means setting boundaries

Bryant Golden Blog

Whether you grew up Christian or not, you were probably taught the Golden Rule as a child. You know, the rule that says you should treat others the way you want to be treated? Well, that little nugget of wisdom came directly from Jesus as He preached to a multitude of people about how to please God.

In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Another translation says to love others the way you would want to be loved. And while this is a great lesson to keep you from pulling Sally’s pigtails on the playground, it gets a little more complicated as we get older.

What happens when other people don’t follow this rule? Let’s be real, we don’t always follow the Golden Rule, so we can’t be too shocked when other people are sometimes rude to us. But, what if it’s all the time? What if someone is being abusive? What then?

Love from a safe distance

Yes, Jesus made it very clear that you should love everyone, with no exceptions. But there are different types of love that you can give to people. And if the relationship is abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally, sexually or any other way), then you get out and love from a distance.

It doesn’t matter if the relationship is with a romantic partner, friend or family member. You cannot be expected to stay in an abusive situation for the sake of loving others. You cannot love someone out of their abusive habits. Sometimes the best way to love someone is to love them from a safe distance, with hard boundaries set between you and them.

The lifeguard approach

I was in counseling several years ago for a season of what can only be described as the most powerful anxiety and depression I have ever experienced or hope to experience in my life. My husband and I were in the counseling room talking about ways that he could help me get out of an anxiety spiral, and I will never forget this analogy that my therapist gave us:

Think of a lifeguard saving a person who is drowning. Lifeguards are trained not to swim directly to a drowning person and carry them to safety. The flailing of the person will push the lifeguard underwater and they will both drown. Instead, lifeguards swim to the side of the person, extend a raft, and pull them to safety on the raft.

In my situation, the analogy served to engage with my anxious thoughts because I could potentially take my husband or anyone else down with me in my panic. Instead, my husband was told how to use very specific logical phrases (logic being the raft in the analogy) to help pull me out of my cycle.

This analogy works for people in an abusive relationship, as well. You cannot love someone out of abusing you. They will flail (sometimes literally) and take you down with them. You can love them, but you have to keep a safe barrier between you two if you ever want to both make it back to shore. Sometimes, that barrier raft can be physical distance or it may be seeing a counselor who moderates every conversation. You must determine what that boundary best boundary is for you, but it’s vital to remember to choose a boundary that helps maintain your safety.

Remember, you are a child of God. You have inherent value and you are worthy of love. Good love. Not abusive love. And the only way you can give love to others is if you are healthy and feel loved. So, set the appropriate boundaries so you can love in a healthy way.

If you need to talk to someone about boundaries or anything related to abusive situations, we have a licensed mental therapist on staff who can talk to you. Please leave a comment below, and we will reach out to you.